Violence has long been a controversial, even elemental aspect of hockey, and director-cinematographer Brett Harvey does not try to downplay it in the incisive documentary “Ice Guardians.” Looking at the role of the game’s “enforcers,” the tough guys who use their fists as a means of settling scores, letting off steam and intimidating opponents in the National Hockey League, Harvey delivers an in-depth cultural and sociological view of the sport, while making a compelling case for the necessity of fighting.
That said, it’s definitely “inside hockey,” as there’s not enough back story on individual players for non-fans to be drawn in.
Pugilistically-inclined skaters — including Brian McGrattan, Clark Gillies, Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, former King Kevin Westgarth and others — address the physical, psychological and emotional price they paid while seeming to have enjoyed every minute of it. Harvey augments the players with TV analysts, researchers and physicians to discuss topics such as concussions, fear, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.
The documentary also examines the human attraction to violence and the role the media plays in depicting it. For the record, the players clearly prefer the term “enforcer” to “goon,” distinguishing the former as a guy who can actually skate, check and occasionally put the puck in the net as opposed to a short-term call-up whose sole purpose is to fight — think of the Hanson brothers in “Slapshot.”
Many of the players here turned to fighting as a way of reaching the NHL after hitting the limits of their skills in junior or minor league hockey. However, due to rule changes and an emphasis on speed, enforcers are a vanishing breed, with many of those interviewed experiencing recent, unwanted retirement.
The film takes the standard position that fighting mitigates more serious violence, citing the cheap shots and dirty play in European leagues where fighting is banned. Several players compare current Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and the multiple concussions he’s suffered from hard, open-ice hits to Wayne Gretzky, who was relatively well-protected in his heyday by the likes of Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley. Semenko claims he wouldn’t trade his two Stanley Cup championship rings won with the ’80s Edmonton Oilers for the chance to have been a 50-goal scorer for a losing team.
And even with the broken bones, missing teeth and other trauma, those interviewed in this thoughtful elegy to the enforcer say they have no regrets over the path they chose. In fact, former St. Louis Blue Kelly Chase (an executive producer on the film) wells up before saying he only wished he had done it with “more fire.”
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: AMC Orange